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bud to bust


Flin Flon is kicking its dope habit.

For nine years, the hardscrabble mining town more than 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg has been home to Canada's biggest legal grow op - the ganja mine, as it was known.

But thanks to a row between Prairie Plant and HudBay Minerals, the mining company that owns the high-security shaft where the marijuana is cultivated, the entire venture is going up in smoke.

"We've moved out; we're gone," said Prairie Plant Systems President and CEO Brent Zettl. "It boils down to a disagreement between us and the senior management at HudBay."

The high-profile pot partnership between HudBay and Prairie Plant began nearly a decade ago. The Saskatoon-based pharmaceutical firm had just won Health Canada's first medical marijuana contract, a $5.7-million deal to deliver 1,865 kilograms in cigarette and dried-leaf form. The company had already been growing plant-based pharmaceuticals 360 metres underground in HudBay's Trout Lake Mine and decided it was an ideal place to grow hydroponic pot.

"We found we could grow the plant really well under secure, environmentally isolated conditions and make money at it," Mr. Zettl said.

The ganja mine was so secure that townspeople couldn't get near it.

"Prairie Plant was a very secretive operation," said Flin Flon Mayor Tom Therien. "You couldn't get down to their operation at all."

That didn't mean it was out of sight, out of mind. A local entrepreneur sold 10,000 shirts bearing the slogan "Marijuana Capital of Canada," elbowing out the town's previous claim to fame as the birthplace of hockey hall-of-famer Bobby Clarke in the process.

But as demand for medicinal marijuana went up - it's increasing by 37 per cent a year, according to Mr. Zettl - the relationship between Prairie Plant and HudBay broke down.

"We had to expand," Mr. Zettl said. "That was the trigger for all this. Our monthly patient usage exceeded our monthly production."

Last year, Health Canada extended its contract with Prairie Plant by three years. Around that same time, however, it had become clear that HudBay had no intention of keeping Prairie Plant on as a tenant in the zinc mine. The mining company announced earlier this year it planned to close the Trout Lake operation by mid-2010.

"They don't think we'd be able to manage the mine ourselves," Mr. Zettl said. "We disagree with that position."

HudBay's head of operations in Flin Flon, Tom Goodman, refused to comment on why it wouldn't negotiate a new lease. "It's quite simple, our contract with Prairie Plant has expired," he said. "Things have come to their logical conclusion."

Even so, HudBay may welcome new tenants when the provincial government begins an imminent study of possible business opportunities for the decommissioned mine.

Prairie Plant has moved its medical marijuana operation elsewhere and doesn't anticipate any disruption to the national supply that over 800 patients now rely upon.

Health Canada has asked Mr. Zettl not to disclose the location of the new grow op. "It's not in Flin Flon, but it is in Canada," he said.

The closure will put 12 full-time workers out of work. Prairie Plant had been promising to hire upwards of 200 workers if it could expand the subterranean operation - welcome news in light of the 225 job losses expected from the Trout Lake mine closure.

"It's a little bit of a blow," said Mr. Therien, of the loss of the ganja mine. "But Prairie Plant had been touting this 200 jobs for a long time. They always left it dangling but it never materialized … We're a mining town, so we're used to be up one day and down the next. We've survived worse than this."

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